Stern warning is an opportunity for HR to make a real difference

The Stern Review – the report on the economics of climate change – has provided a great opportunity for HR to influence the business agenda.

While global warming may not be high on the HR priority list, the issue of carbon emissions will now be rising up the board agenda for most organisations. So how can HR make a contribution?

As well as pointing to technological solutions, Sir Nicholas Stern identified the barriers to behavioural change that stop organisations being energy efficient.

One major cause of carbon emissions is the use of transport associated with commuting and business travel.

We have people sitting in gridlocked traffic or crammed into public transport, all trying to get to work at the same time, polluting the planet and getting stressed out in the process. We have people travelling to see others face to face when there are technologies available that can substitute for a high percentage of these meetings and save wasted time as well as carbon.

Stern was not very explicit about the way we can change these behaviours, other than through taxation that makes the cost of transport prohibitive. However, there is an effective solution waiting to be implemented if we can only get out of some working habits acquired over the past 200 years.

If employers were prepared to be more flexible about when and where work is performed, they could significantly reduce the amount of commuting endured by their employees. If they were also prepared to embrace technologies such as video-conferencing, they could save money and improve their business results – as well as adding to their green credentials.

So why do we still insist that people travel to work and then sit at a desk all day when they could do much of their work from a distance electronically? We are still wedded to working patterns that were set up in the Industrial Revolution, and we are struggling to adopt those appropriate to the ‘Information Revolution’.

One of the reasons for this is that the HR function is not taking a strategic view of working patterns, and is actually inhibiting some changes being brought about by technology.

The internet has changed our habits as consumers, and we expect the retail sector to have extended hours, but a high percentage of our employees still have the fixed patterns of work that were introduced two centuries ago.

Despite a growing body of evidence which shows that people who work flexibly are more productive – and despite the evident cost savings and reduction in employee turnover and absenteeism – managers are still reluctant to let go of current work practices. We have a ‘presenteeism’ culture in the UK that not only expects people to be at their desks and be seen to be working, but also puts us at the top of the league for working hours, yet leaves us well down the list in terms of productivity.

So the new focus on global warming should be a wake-up call to all employers to review their working practices.

If employees could spend one day a week working from home, or perhaps work four longer days and take the fifth off, that would immediately save 20% of the carbon emissions from commuting (at least by car). This also has the added benefit of improved work-life balance for the employee.

If employers replaced half their face-to-face meetings with audio or video conferences, they would save the time and cost of unnecessary travel, and would find that the time wasted during the meetings would also be reduced.

If the HR function wants to earn a seat at the boardroom table, it needs to be leading the drive for employee effectiveness and promoting new ways of working – not just as employee benefits, but as a positive contribution to achieving business goals.

By Peter Thomson, director, Future Work Forum, Henley Management College

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